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Fake News is on the rise, can we really believe what we see?

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Last week, I attended CCS Insight’s Predictions for 2020 and Beyond, its largest Predictions event to date. 

From the future of the 5G market to the rise of bias testing in artificial intelligence, this year’s event navigated a broad range of developments in the industry. I particularly enjoyed listening to Olaf Swantee, CEO of a Swiss telecommunications provider, Sunrise, who shared his learnings from their deployment of 5G. In particular, the impact of fake news and how Olaf navigated this new (but rising) issue.

Olaf was faced with public advocacy groups from all around the world voicing concern over possible adverse impacts of the high-frequency 5G technology and fake news fever pitch on the internet’s latest conspiracy theory. In November 2018, a viral Facebook post blamed a 5G test mast for the mysterious death of 300 birds in the Netherlands (the test actually took place months earlier), while people in anti-5G groups were sharing tips on how to burn or smash down telephone masts.

While conspiracies generally tend to diffuse slower than scientific news, online they may well spread further and faster. A study in the scientific journal Science found that false news was 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true stories.

Sunrise decided to take these concerns head-on in a recently released fact-checking sheet developed by Switzerland’s Telecommunications Association (ASUT). 

“Birds dying, military weapons, government conspiracy—when it comes to the 5th generation of mobile communications, the hit parade of falsehoods being spread is a long one,” ASUT said in a statement. “For the time, the Swiss Telecommunications Association is releasing a fact-check document on 5G for everyone who would like to be able to rely on truth in the news and not the misinformation.”

This is a powerful lesson in any issue response – find yourself a credible independent spokesperson. Another element of their response was focusing on the benefits of the technology – a video was created of a pensioner being freed from the restrictions of simple broadband by using 5G in its place. Much of their content was unbranded which also added credibility to the facts.

I also learnt at the conference how CEOs like Olaf may soon have further armor in their fake news battle with the emergence of “deep fake” detection technology that turns fake news against itself. Fake news is already a massive problem worldwide and with continuing improvements in content generation tools powered by artificial intelligence, we are not far from the era of neural fake news i.e., fake news generated by AI.

Currently, bots are being used to spread fake news, but researchers are already working to counter such a scenario. An artificial intelligence model developed by researchers from the University of Washington and Allen Institute for AI (AI2) can spot fake news with 92% accuracy.

The algorithm, Grover (strangely short for “Generating Articles by Only Viewing Metadata Records”), can analyse more aspects of a news article than other tools. These include the body of the article, the headline, author name, publication name, and other details that could indicate foul play. According to the team, this capability can be used for modelling potential threats from those who use AI to create fake news. A bit like the approach used in cybersecurity in penetration testing.

It was an interesting event to attend, and it made me question the everyday world and the impact of fake news on daily life. I’ll certainly be tuning in to the final episode of BBC’s The Capture tonight that looks at the troubling world of fake news in this ‘post-truth era’, but this time with even more questions around can we really believe what we see? 

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